By Danny Peary
Blood Brother fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Steve Hoover’s deeply moving tribute to his best friend, Rocky Braat, who found his calling living with and working with HIV/AIDS kids at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, India, is premiering at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston Street in New York City on Friday. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year, the Hot Docs 2013 Audience Award, the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, and many other awards at festivals. You owe it to yourself to see it. I hope you do and it plays not only in Sag Harbor but receives wide circulation because 100% of the film’s profits will go to Rocky and the orphanage. Guaranteed, you’ll be inspired. Braat, who the adoring kids call “Rocky Anna,” which means brother, is proof positive that country music star Becky Hobbs was correct when she penned the assuring line, “there are angels among us.” The personable Hoover, who directed, edited, and cowrote his debut feature, arrived in New York early this week and we had this conversation.
Danny Peary: How many years ago did you meet Rocky Braat in art school?
Steve Hoover: We met in the Fall of 2001. It was the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, a commercial art school. He lived across the hall from me and he introduced himself to me one day, just as I was getting on the elevator.
To the left: Steve Hoover and Rocky Braat.
DP: And he wanted to be a graphic designer, and you wanted to be a filmmaker?
SH: He wanted to study graphic design, and I was interested in animation. Then I switched my major to industrial design, did that for a year, and then finally switched to filmmaking.
DP: Why do you think you two guys became such close friends?
SH: I think we just kind of liked each other. Rocky has always loved people and reached out them. He was a really social guy at school. He was someone who made the effort to build a friendship. When he introduced himself to me, he had a guitar, and he started playing and singing. I was from a small town, and I’d never heard anybody sing as well as him in person, not at a concert or anything, so I was really impressed. And he liked my artwork. I guess what started it all was that we took interest in little pieces of each other’s character and talent.
DP: In your movie, he plays the guitar and sings for the kids at the orphanage and he’s pretty good. Did you ever encourage him to be an off-campus coffee house singer?
SH: It’s funny you say that, because he told me that when he was growing up, he always wanted to do that. He pursued it a little bit in college. He wrote music and did little shows and worked really hard to try to record songs. But it never really went anywhere and I think that dream faded.
DP: Did he encourage you to become a filmmaker?
SH: Well, that’s kind of interesting. There were two bedrooms in the apartment we lived in and we shared a bedroom. We’d have other people live with us in the other bedroom and they’d come and go but Rocky and I were stable roommates for many years. As we were going to sleep, we’d talk about different things, including our dreams. When I switched to filmmaking, I had two things I wanted to do. I was very interested in filming wildlife and making some sort of documentary in a developing third world country. I talked to him about this and he was always reassuring. Rocky always has been really encouraging and supportive of my efforts in film, even now.
DP: In your “Director’s Statement” in the film’s production notes, you say that there was “nothing about him that was especially out of the ordinary.” He was someone who couldn’t commit to anything, he’d lie immobilized in his underwear in front of fans in the hot summer. Would you two have been surprised by what the other is doing today in hot India?
SH: I definitely would have been surprised by what he is doing. Rocky traveled around a little bit in the US, trying to figure out where he would be. He would always go places but leave in a few months. He lived in Arizona and LA for a couple of months. He almost moved to Alaska. He lived on the road for a couple of months, replacing light bulbs in pharmacies. But he’d always come back to Pittsburgh. I saw him as someone who was trying to find where he thought he should be, but I never would have expected him to end up in India, doing what he’s doing for five years. However, I wasn’t surprised that he took his initial trip to India as a tourist because he’d been everywhere else. He bought a one-way ticket for his trip, but I was expecting him to come back soon.
DP: But he spent time with needy kids in the orphanage and was hooked.
We see in the movie that Rocky is very sensitive, but did you ever see a humanitarian bent to him before this?
SH: He’s definitely a sensitive guy, and I think he’s always been nurturing and good at taking care of people. He was always concerned when people were troubled. He was the kind of guy who’d sit down and talk with you if he sensed you’re going through something. He liked to cook meals for people.
DP: Was he the type who gave money to a homeless person on the street?
SH: He would take it a step further. In college, usually through Rocky’s prompting, we’d have different homeless people stay at our house. We literally invited homeless guys to come in off the street, take a shower, and stay with us for a couple of days. We tried to help recovering heroin addicts, things like that.
DP: I’d guess that one of the things that bonded you was that you had the same sensibility.
SH: For me, it came through different experiences that he and I had. We had some spiritual changes when we were in college. I was more influenced by that and inspired by Rocky. Looking back on those interactions–people trying to help people–I’d say they could have played a part in Rocky’s ultimate decision to move to India.
DP: Early in the movie, in an animated sequence, there’s the story told by his father about how when Rocky was a kid he nursed a badly mangled cat back to health. That’s really interesting because that’s what we’d expect from the adult Rocky in your movie. Had Rocky ever told you that story?
SH: No, I wasn’t aware of it. I went to talk with his father and after the interview was over he said, “I’m going to tell you this story…” And then just started talking. We weren’t prepared to record him, so at the beginning it is just camera audio, and then we were able to get the better audio.
DP: I know Rocky has always had a difficult relationship with his father, so I was surprised we hear from him at all, but that is the only time he talks in your movie.
SH: There were some technical reasons why that’s the case, but that story was the only thing we recorded of him that he felt comfortable giving us permission to use.
DP: How did you two decide that you were going to a make a movie about Rocky and his life at the orphanage in India? Was it your decision or a mutual decision?
SH: He’d been living there for a year and emailing me, and giving me updates about his experiences. Some of them would be funny, some of them would be tragic, but I was always moved by them and curious about Rocky in India. It still didn’t make sense he was there. Rocky had been asking me to visit ever since he went. At the time, I was doing a lot of commercials and music videos and I was losing my passion. He was saying, “Bring your camera to India. It’s a very inspiring place, maybe it’ll rekindle some of that fire in you.” He was a budding photographer when he first went, so he was really excited when he got there and could take photos. He thought the same thing would happen to me and my camera.
DP: Does he still take photos there?
SH: He still takes photographs and the company I work for, Animal Media Group, has actually published a book of his photos and journal entries. All the profits go to Rocky and the orphanage, which is great. All the money from Blood Brother is also going to Rocky and the kids and other HIV efforts. One of the programs we’re putting together with the money is developing small businesses for the kids to run and operate– Rocky is teaching the kids photography and one those businesses will be a photography business.
DP: So you go over there to visit him and take your camera, but you’re not yet thinking of making a documentary?
SH: When he was inviting me, I just felt a need to visit my friend. But I had always wanted to make a documentary and I had the resources to do it, including access to gear, so before going to India I started moving forward with that thought. Going into it, a feature was always what I wanted to do. I approached him and asked, “Is it okay if we do this?” And he said, “Absolutely.” Initially it was just going to be me and my wife going over, but as I started talking about it and making plans, everything changed. The producer, Danny Yourd, whom I’d worked with for a long time, jumped on board, as did a couple of other friends. Other people started volunteering their help. We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, and ultimately there were five people who went. It was a month-long trip, and three of us were there the whole time.
DP: Did Rocky tell you not tell anybody in the village that the kids at the orphanage all had HIV/AIDS? Because we see in the film that the nearby villagers had a bad reaction when they found out.
SH: No, nobody ever told us to conceal anything, but it was something that they didn’t advertise. The home actually used to be in the city but the kids had problems with their school and in their neighborhood, so through a series of connections and events, they found the land outside of the city to build the orphanage. They moved out there and it caused so many problems when the all the villagers found out. They just can’t get past the stigma. The home didn’t hide that the kids are HIV-positive and they have donors and visitors come all the time.
DP: It’s very moving in the movie when you and Rocky arrive at the orphanage at the break of dawn, after he has been away for a while, and he climbs over the wall and all the kids rush out to greet him. What were your emotions seeing this in person?
SH: It was definitely emotional. That whole morning was incredible. We got there at two or three in the morning and everything was dark. It took an hour and a half to get to Rocky’s house. We got there and the sun started to rise. I always tell people that India slowly revealed itself to me. I could have spent the whole day just soaking that in. But at that time, we got to the orphanage and the kids came out, and they were just filled with joy. They were happy to see Rocky and happy to meet new people. I was really overcome. I was amazed at the kids–amazed visually—and just completely inspired and overwhelmed.
DP: You also saw the love the kids had for Rocky.
SH: Oh yeah, that was something else. Even in the village, where he had built relationships with everyone, I was seeing a Rocky I felt like I didn’t know. It was interesting because I had wondered what he’d look like in these surroundings. And seeing him there, that morning, it immediately started to make sense. I thought, “Okay, this guy has just so much to give, and this is a place where there are so many needs.”
DP: I guess this is my big question: how much do you think his troubled childhood–as an abused kid and an abandoned kid–led to his wanting to help these kids?
SH: I think it had a great deal to do with it. That’s the reason I wanted to introduce what happened in his past into the film. I think he’s able to sympathize with the kids. Though these kids suffered more, he knows the feeling that some of them have because he too went through traumatic stuff.
DP: I would guess that he never wants to let these kids down because adults had let him down. Does that make sense?
SH: His dad was a soldier and left when Rocky and his sister were young [leaving them in the care of a drug-addicted mother and her abusive boyfriends--until his grandfather took them in]–and though he returned, he was an inconsistent figure in Rocky’s life. So Rocky knows how these kids feel after they’ve gone through similar things. Some of them had good parents who died [usually from AIDS] and some had parents who were still alive but didn’t want them and left them at the orphanage. He knows that feeling and I think this was the first time he saw a group of kids he was able to connect to.
DP: There’s the double-edged sword thing in his taking care of these kids. As we said, he’s super sensitive and that’s exactly what’s needed with these kids–but when they suffer or die, it really takes a toll on him. In the film he says early on that going back to India means he will suffer.
SH: I feel like through the year, while making the film, he came to a lot of resolution and contentment about being there. But even with that, it hasn’t stopped the kind of suffering that he goes through. The great thing is that the kids have been really healthy. There hasn’t been a major medical scare. Rocky still goes through the emotional challenges, but the good thing is he’s proactive about getting help. He talks a lot about it, he works on it. I feel like he’s a healthy place.
DP: In the movie, we can see you that you found a comfort level with the kids, and enjoyed being with them. Did it take you much time to be comfortable with the kids when Rocky wasn’t right there with you?
SH: Yes. There were different things that would trigger the stigma in my mind that I had that I thought I wouldn’t have when walking into the orphanage because I was educated and Rocky had prepared me for this. But it took me awhile to get past the stigma, as it probably would with most people. It’s almost like there were different tiers to it. I’d be like, “Okay, I’m comfortable with the kids holding my hand. But if I go to touch them, I’m going to be a little more calculated to make sure I don’t touch a wound.” Over time I got less cautious and more comfortable in treating them like people as opposed to patients. The good thing is the kids really helped. They’re so warm and intrusive in a good way. They’ll reach out and grab your hand and will initiate affection.
DP: They’re sweet little kids who can smile although they have tragic stories to tell. I think that’s probably one of the first things you responded to when you got there and met them.
SH: Yeah, definitely. I take away a lot from these kids. I was equally inspired by the kids and Rocky. They hold out in the face of their trials and how difficult their lives have been. They’re really amazing kids. They just put so much in perspective.
DP: In the amazing sequence when Surya, the sweet young boy who was infatuated by your camera, is in the hospital with all his vitals shut down, and Rocky takes care of him nonstop, it’s like watching Mother Teresa at work. Were you in awe?
SH: Definitely. Rocky would be inspired if he heard you say that. There’s a handful of reasons why he wanted to check out India, and one of them was a documentary he had seen about Mother Teresa. It was so awesome how she touched sick people that nobody else would touch and took care of people no one else would. That inspired him. Watching him take care of Surya was an incredible experience for me. After spending time at the orphanage in my first trip to India, I was more rough and rugged—I was now comfortable with the stigma and thought I could handle India. So we land at the airport on our second trip and literally go straight to the hospital and stay there for days. I wasn’t prepared for that. Watching Rocky take care of Surya affected me deeply. I had seen him caring for the kids at the orphanage, and a lot of it was light-hearted. But this was just a whole other level of care and devotion, and it was a lot more real. He had done similar things before, I just hadn’t seen it. And a lot of the lights went on—whoa! I started realizing how limited I was. Like you were saying before, if Rocky wasn’t there I’d have checked out. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. In some ways, he was opposing authority in caring for kids. People weren’t really comfortable with him being there and doing what he was doing, but nobody else was doing it so he was like, “I gotta do it. Somebody has to.”
DP: What he did in the hospital you captured on film, and I can’t think of anything like that other than in a Mother Teresa documentary. Seeing little Surya smile at you and the camera when he’s in such agony is deeply moving, and I’m sure when you looked at the footage later you thought, “What I got here is amazing.” Is that true?
SH: Yeah. I was also the editor on the film and working with the footage, going through all that and constantly re-watching it, was just very moving. I never got numb to the footage, and I still find it moving.
DP: People applaud when pilots land airplanes safely, but we all want to applaud Rocky after saving Surya. It was a big moment, as are other moments in the film that are about life and death. But you also filmed small stuff, too.
SH: That’s true. We kind of filmed everything. There are so many little moments that to me really help show the character of Rocky and of the kids. A lot of these little things were really special to me. Something like getting pizza is such a huge deal to these kids.
DP: There’s actually a pizza motif in your movie. I think you knew by showing these orphan kids across the world loving pizza we can relate them to our own kids in America.
SH: Yeah, definitely. That’s something that really inspired me, just realizing how normal they were. They go to school, they play, they laugh, they have friends. With the exception of their situation, they just want to do the things that we want to do.
DP: Before going back to India for Rocky’s wedding, did you work on the film at home?
SH: I had been organizing the footage, marking interviews and stuff like that. I had started post-production but I wasn’t heavy into the edit. I had planned on being in India only for five weeks on the first trip, so when I left I went back to live life. I’m married and have a full-time job.
DP: But you always intended to go back for his wedding, whenever it was?
SH: Yeah, I told Rocky I was basically on call.
DP: In the movie, you interview his sister, grandfather and father. None of them were at the wedding. Did it hurt him that you were the only “family” who came?
SH: Yeah, it was definitely hard on him. He invited everybody. His wedding was in India and it’s expensive to go there and it’s difficult because of the passports and getting visas–but I had to do all that stuff and I got there. I’m not slamming anybody, I’m just saying I definitely made the effort. He was definitely hurt by their absence. You see him crying at the wedding; he cried for a while and people were trying to be supportive but I cut down that scene. It definitely hurt him, but it hasn’t stopped him from always trying to connect with his family.
DP: Because family has always let him down, I sensed that you felt you had to come through for him by coming to India and being his friend through the wedding and everything else. You didn’t want to disappoint him. It’s not just Rocky, but it’s also the strength of your friendship that viewers will find very touching. You did come through for him, so there are two inspiring adults in this movie–you and him.
SH: I always want to be there for Rocky. My wife jokes that when Rocky calls, the world stops for me, no matter where I am. It’s interesting that you point that out. I remember Rocky prepping me to go to India, when he’d always say, “Do this, don’t do that. Don’t bring any comforts, don’t bring anything.” He was trying to prepare me for the stigma, how to treat the kids. I’d take all that to mind and heart, because I wanted to, like you were saying, make him proud of me and have him see that I was able to do it.
DP: Also, as you know, he’s somebody who doesn’t see his own worth. He’s never evaluating himself. but by your doing this for him, you make him feel better about himself.
SH: Yeah, I’d say so.
DP: And I’m sure he’s also humbled that you are donating all profits from the movie to him and the orphanage.
SH: Leaving India, as we started to put everything together, I was like, “Man, I really want this film to help Rocky and those kids.” I wanted people to think about these kids. I wanted this to be as practical as possible. How can this movie physically help the kids? That’s how we came up with the model, people pay to watch the film and the money going in Rocky’s direction.
DP: I’ve read that in addition you established the nonprofit LIGHT, which stands for Looking to Inspire Global Healing Today.
SH: That was set up by a friend of mine who also visits Rocky in India. He started that and we worked together to design it so Rocky can access the profits from the film. We couldn’t just give the money to Rocky because it would be taxed heavily and he’d have to take care of the business side of things, which he wouldn’t want to do. So we wanted to protect him and get him all the money. So we started LIGHT to receive the money from the film as well as donations from people who want to help.